In Syria, history is repeating itself

What will be deemed normal in the Turkish-annexed part of Syria is likely to be just as arbitrary as in Russified Crimea.

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On the verge of disaster. Civilians ride in the back of a truck as they flee villages that were taken over by Turkey-backed fighters in the countryside of Tal Abyad, October 24. (AFP)

In Syria, other people’s history from lands near and far is repeating itself — not as farce but as a parody. Developments in Syria in 2019 are an ironic imitation of Iraq in 2003 and Ukraine in 2014.

Consider US President Donald Trump’s comments that a small number of US troops would remain in Syria to secure “the Oil.”

The 1,000-person US contingent in north-eastern Syria had been suddenly pulled back by Trump, effectively green-lighting the October 9 Turkish invasion of Kurdish-controlled territory. Trump, who had paid no heed to the threatened massacre of the Kurdish fighters, was brazen enough to nominate Syrian oil as worthy of the United States’ tender care.

Accordingly, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper assured that US troops would be stationed around unspecified oil areas in Syria “to deny access, specifically revenue to [the Islamic State] ISIS and any other groups that may want to seek that revenue to enable their own malign activities.”

Then the US president suggested “some of our big oil companies” could move in “and do it properly,” by which he probably meant extracting the black gold and selling it for a handsome profit.

Minus the audacious public acknowledgement that Middle Eastern oil matters more to US politicians than human lives, it might have been Iraq 2003 all over again.

When US forces rolled into central Baghdad in April 2003, they quickly took charge of Iraq’s massive Oil Ministry. Unlike other public buildings, including the National Museum, that were left unguarded and ransacked, the Oil Ministry was guarded by approximately 50 tanks and strategically positioned sharpshooters. It was clearly meant to secure the oil. The only difference is that US President George W. Bush wasn’t indiscreet enough to say as much.

Then there is Turkey’s invasion of Syrian territory. It is reminiscent of Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 but with one crucial difference. When Russia intervened militarily in Crimea, it provoked international outrage. Crippling sanctions were imposed by the United States and the European Union and Russia’s relations with the West were ruptured. Not so with Turkey.

All signs suggest Ankara may just get away with it. On October 23, Trump lifted sanctions against Turkey, commending its promise of a “permanent ceasefire” in north-eastern Syria.

Meanwhile, the Europeans have been crying foul but not with one voice and not as furiously as over Russia’s Crimean adventure.

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer called out Turkey — “our NATO partner” — for having “annexed territory in violation of international law.” She wants NATO defence ministers to consider a controversial proposal to deploy international troops to establish a security zone in north-eastern Syria but the chances of any of this coming to pass are slim.

Under terms of the deal negotiated in Sochi on October 22 by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkey has de facto control of the area it has taken in Syria.

The focus of the 6-hour Erdogan-Putin talks, the Kremlin said, was about “normalising the situation” in north-eastern Syria. It’s something Putin strived mightily to do in Crimea through a combination of megaprojects and maximum pressure on the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic Muslim community, among others. What will be deemed normal in the Turkish-annexed part of Syria is likely to be just as arbitrary as in Russified Crimea.

However, for all the echoes of the past, events in Syria are playing out in a very different context to what went before. Putin’s Russia, swaggering and newly enshrined as the main non-regional powerbroker, continues in its usual way — unashamedly transactional with short-term friends who serve its long-term interests. Now it is also served by Trump’s America, a risible figure on the world stage, compared to the once sober, if heavy-handed protector of the international order.

Originally published in The Arab Weekly

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